Willa Vennema is an artist/painter living in Portland and Swans Island, Maine. We talked as we drove to the opening of Transformations – A New England Wax group exhibit in Peterborough, New Hampshire this month.
Julie Vohs: I noticed from the web site images of your work that you began as a landscape painter but have now moved to abstractions. Can you talk about that transition and how it occurred?
Willa Vennema: Actually, I haven’t stopped landscape painting. I paint landscapes every summer because I have no studio on Swans Island, and since we spend most of our time outside, and it is so beautiful, I do plein air work. Later, when I return to my studio in Portland, I sometimes take those pieces and rework them or use them as inspiration for new work. For about 10 years I have been trying to align the two bodies of art (the abstract and landscape) by working first from plein air and then doing more abstracted versions back in the studio in encaustic or cold wax.
About 4 years ago, I decided that I was ready for a big change. During the winter I paint abstractly, from my imagination only. That transition probably took place about the same time I switched from using a cold wax/oil medium to encaustic painting with melted wax . I’m always working on more than one series at a time, using one to feed the other. I’ll work on an abstract piece and then move to boat images in my other series.
The boat motif recurs regularly in my work – I find the dory to be such an archetypal vessel with much inherent meaning and staying power in my visual vocabulary.
We still see these old vessels when we are out and about on our small motorboat. Sometimes they are still in use but often slowly decaying after being washed up on shore after a storm. I also find the grand Windjammers quite beautiful and inspiring. We see them all summer coming into the harbor on Swans Island and I’ll paint them on site on paper in ink or acrylic, and sometimes I’ll collage them into encaustic.
Like many artists who work with encaustic, I love texture and layering. Usually I start by creating backgrounds on a panel using materials I have collected (fabric, stencils, or netting from fruit bags). These works sometimes remain purely abstract, but often act as rich backdrops for the boat paintings. It is always a process of trial and error, mixing different materials and combining contrasting elements.
Julie: How and where do you find meaning in your work?
Willa: I’m not afraid to say I always find meaning in the process. There is something about being open to discovering something new that happens only when engaging in the process; by pushing oneself to try different things – experimenting with color palettes, materials, textures, form and shape. Just like my work with young children, I find if I can be fully present in the studio, I will find magic in the moment.
Julie: So what about your early development? What encouraged you to create art in the first place and what would you say remains of that initial drive to make art?
Willa: Well, way, way back – I was a musician and my older sister was the artist! In college though, I was able to choose from a variety of classes and I found myself drawn to the art classes. I started by enrolling in art history and print-making classes, and then signed up for photography and painting classes. I was a combined art history and studio major at Oberlin College where I received my BA. After Oberlin, I went to Cooper Union and received a BFA. I worked a lot in lithography and photography at Cooper, but then I found that painting was more satisfying because I could do more with it. It was the most challenging and it seemed like I was always being surprised by the process – and that remains today.
Julie: So what is your studio practice like now?
Willa: I’ve always known maintaining a studio practice takes a huge amount of dedication and commitment. So I arrange my life to always include it. I earn my living teaching early childhood education because it is flexible and it allows me to run a preschool from my home. I kept it part time with a schedule of at least two afternoons – and now three days – for painting. I go up into my studio and paint whether I feel like it or not. It definitely feels like something happens in my brain when I’m up there. I get into that state of flow where decisions get easier and the work starts heading in the right direction all on its own. I think it’s really important not to wait for inspiration. Just do the work.
Julie: So that being said, what would you say is your attitude towards the “world of art” as it is today?
Willa: Well I guess I’d say I’m sort of old fashioned compared to what’s going on. I’m not doing installations, site-specific or conceptual work. I really don’t identify with a lot of what’s going on out there. Even though I grew up in New York, I’m not that inspired by whatever the trend is that is “happening” in the art world—(a couple of exceptions are individual artists such as Andrew Goldsworthy and El Anatsui who I think are both true geniuses). I’m living in Portland, Maine for a reason and I’m at peace with making the work I do because I enjoy it and it is satisfying to me.
Julie: Do you have a supportive art community or critique partner that helps you to look objectively at your work?
Willa: Mostly I have good friends who are also artists but we don’t necessarily critique each other’s work. We support each other by being there when getting to the studio gets tough. We have a loosely organized artist group on Swan’s Island that hosts open studios once a year, and of course my colleagues in New England Wax are a great support and help to alleviate some of the isolation that occurs while working on your own.
Julie: What themes or topics get you excited about making art?
Willa: Color gets me excited. Ten years ago, an artist friend told me she was doing an exercise where she was systematically going through the color spectrum with each new work to get her out of her comfort zone. I thought that was a great idea and so I started doing that – especially if I feel like I’m in danger of getting into a rut.
As mentioned before, the archetypal boat image has been a long-term theme. Often times it is things I have spent a lot of time looking at on Swans Island that simmer in my subconscious and then later emerge in my work. For example, an abstracted image of a simple house structure such as the New England style clapboard houses you see on Swans Island was a theme for many years. Other themes have been trees, rocks, waves and hills.
One of my biggest series of over forty works was an abstract idea of a wave or a hill. Each painting could be hung in two different directions, and many of the paintings could be hung together as diptychs or triptychs. The basic image of a wave/hill emerged in my work from my subconscious/memory and it resonated with me. I went with it and experimented with it in many different ways. That series had a clear landscape reference.
When I work fully abstractly, a theme may start out as something as simple as incorporating pages of old books into my work. My most recent series, “Word: Windows” uses woven strips of book pages combined with colors and patterns using stencils and found materials with encaustic.
A idea of weaving the strips of paper probably came from my experiences of making pies with my daughter on Swans Island. This is a perfect example of how by getting into the flow and being inspired by materials and process can lead to the emergence of themes and experiences that have meaning in one’s life.